Man gets 33 years for plowing SUV into UNC students

By Marlon A. Walker
Associated Press / August 27, 2008
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HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. - A former student was sentenced to up to 33 years in prison yesterday for plowing his sport utility vehicle into a crowd at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in a self-professed bid to avenge Muslim deaths overseas.

Mohammed Taheri-Azar, 25, pleaded guilty earlier this month to nine counts of attempted murder for the March 2006 attack at a popular outdoor gathering spot known as The Pit.

One person had a head injury and several were cut and bruised from jumping out of the SUV's path, but no one stayed in the hospital overnight, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said.

Victim Karen Harman said in court yesterday that when she saw a Jeep coming toward her, she assumed it was headed to The Pit to do work.

"But the driver hit the gas, and, I mean, he hit the gas. In the next instant, I was on the ground, clutching my knee in pain," she said.

History professor Michael Allsep, whose wrist and tail bone were broken, said he feared for his life.

"This man not only tried to kill me and my students, he tried to kill the best of our future. He failed only through poor execution," Allsep wrote in a statement read by his mother.

Statements were read aloud from several other victims who weren't in court. Woodall said all shared the sentiment that while their injuries were not lasting, the effects of the incident linger.

Woodall argued aggravating factors, including Taheri-Azar targeting a group of people and using the SUV as a deadly weapon, made a lengthy sentence necessary.

Asked whether he wanted to speak on his own behalf, Taheri-Azar, dressed in a gray suit and white shirt, declined.

But his sister, Lida Taheri-Azar, testified that her brother's actions were uncharacteristic of the quiet person she'd grown up with. She said she felt outside influences led him to act irrationally.

The original charges were consolidated into two counts of attempted murder for sentencing purposes. Taheri-Azar was sentenced to between 13 and 16 1/2 years in prison on each count.

Authorities said Taheri-Azar was traveling between 10 and 30 miles per hour when he drove onto campus and through the Pit.

Afterward, he waited in his vehicle for police for about 15 minutes and told them he was the man they were looking for. Police found a letter in his apartment that he had written them because he thought he would be killed sometime during the attack.

The letter said he wanted revenge for the deaths of Muslims overseas that he attributed to actions by the United States.

Taheri-Azar is a naturalized citizen from Iran who grew up near Charlotte and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.

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